Obama does not suffer illusions about the pathologies afflicting the broader Muslim world. If anything, his pessimism on matters related to the dysfunctions of Muslim states, and to the inability of the umma—the worldwide community of Muslims—to contain and ultimately neutralize the extremist elements in its midst, has, at times, an almost paralyzing effect on him. The president has come to the conclusion that the underlying problems afflicting Islam are too deep, and too resistant to American intervention, to warrant implementation of the sort of policies that his critics, including his critics in foreign-policy think tanks, demand.
Does Obama go too far in avoiding the terms “radical Islam” or “violent Islam”? This question represents a not-unreasonable basis for an interesting debate. However, given the realities of the battlefield—that most of the fighting against ISIS is done by Muslim-majority states, and Muslim organizations, and that the leaders of these entities would rather not see the U.S. overgeneralize its description of the fight—then it seems that Obama’s semantic prudence is justifiable.
None of this is meant to be an argument that Obama does enough, or does enough of the right things, in the struggle against ISIS. And Obama could bring more emotional intelligence to bear on this problem: He is eloquent in condemning the fearmongers, but he sometimes fails to acknowledge the legitimate fears of non-racist, non-paranoid Americans who would prefer not to be killed by terrorists acting in the name of Islam. The United States is under intermittent attack from an organization called the Islamic State, which represents one, extreme, branch of Islam. There is no point in trying to convince Americans that what is happening is not happening. But neither is there a point in encouraging hysteria and division.
Privately, Obama expresses the deepest loathing for ISIS and other radical Islamist groups. ISIS, he has noted, stands for—quite literally—everything he opposes. Nevertheless, his approach to the challenge of Islamist terrorism is sometimes emotionally unsatisfying; it is sometimes insufficient to the challenge; and he himself is sometimes too fatalistic about the possibility of change in the Middle East.
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